Magic in Old Norse: Seith, Curses, and Blessings


By Jackson CrawfordUniversity of Colorado, Boulder

The worldview of the medieval Norse did not deny human beings access to some of the supernatural powers that the gods commanded; in particular, the volva is a major figure. Yet the magic of the volva, the art called seith magic in Old Norse, makes her an outsider. And any man who attempts such unmanly magic is a disgrace, even a criminal.

Illustration of a mysterious and magical Medieval sword
Medieval Nords somewhat believed that human beings could benefit from supernatural powers like magic. (Image: Tomertu/Shutterstock)

The Unmanly Magic of Seith

We might wonder why seith magic is considered so unmanly. The reasons for the unmanly shame of doing this magic are never spelled out in our written sources, but they might have something to do with the specific costume worn by the volva. 

In a scene in The Saga of Eirik the Red, we see what a strange and distinctly feminine outfit the volva wore, right on down to the strange catskin gloves:

She had on a blue cloak, with a tie-string at the neck, over herself, and stones were set in it all the way to the hem. On her neck, she had glass beads, and on her head, she had a black hood made of lambskin which was lined with a white catskin. And she had a staff in her hand with a knob at the top. The staff was decorated with brass and it had stones set in it up to the knob. 

She had a belt tied around herself, and there was a large sack on it. In that sack, she kept her talismans, which she needed in order to make prophecies. On her feet, she had shaggy shoes of calfskin, which had black shoestrings and big tin knobs at their ends. On her hands, she had catskin gloves, and they were white inside and shaggy.

The fact that so much time is spent in describing this outfit must make us wonder if this distinctive outfit is required of the practitioner of seith magic. If so, then the requirement to wear a woman’s clothing might well be all that was needed to convict the male practitioner of unmanliness.

Odin’s Supernatural Powers

We see how unusually marked-out this practice is in Snorri’s description of the magic arts known to Odin. Snorri credits Odin with a range of powers that are headed under the category of the normal Norse word for magic, including everything from knowing magically where to dig for precious metals, to teaching his ravens language, to shape-changing. But the practice of seith is different.

Snorri says that thanks to this skill, seith in particular: [Odin] could know people’s fates, and things that were yet to come, and he could cause people death or bad luck or bad health, or take away someone’s intelligence or strength and give it to someone else.

Snorri goes further, even associating the seith magic specifically with priestesses (or goddesses—the word is the same in Old Norse): And this magical lore that he practiced involves so much sexual passivity that it was thought to be a shameful pursuit for men, and it was a skill taught to priestesses.

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Curses and Blessings 

Now, blessings and curses are the most basic form of magic, accessible to anyone who can say or write them. Some of the most commonplace expressions of modern-day English and other languages evolved from what were once simple blessings or curses of just this kind.

Monk in black robe with a staff in his hand
Even a person with no magic power can inflict other people with curses. (Image: Anelo/Shutterstock)

To say “goodbye” in English was original “God be with you”, invoking divine protection on the person we take leave of. We say “hello”, originally from a simple wish that the person we greet be “hale” or healthy. In a broad sense, even swearing an oath is an act of magic of this kind—casting a sort of spell to bind oneself in the future. 

Such oaths, both in the Norse world and in an earlier English-speaking society that took such words more literally, may be strengthened by invoking a god—calling on a beyond-human power to enforce our human words.

Blessings and curses are the simplest kind of magic, but might have truly powerful effects, even when spoken by someone who is not otherwise known to be magically adept.


A form of visual magic often—but misleadingly—associated with the pre-Christian Norse, are magical symbols known as sigils. These are specific symbols known from spell books written in Scandinavia in the early Protestant period—largely in the 1600s AD, more than six centuries removed from the initial conversion to Christianity, and four centuries removed even from the renaissance of interest in pre-Christian literature that led to the writing of the Eddas in the 1200s AD.

"The Helmet of of the Terrifier," a Norse Sigil.
“The Helmet of the Terrifier” is one of the most well-known sigils in Old Norse. (Image: Dbh2ppa/Public domain)

The most famous of these sigils is called “the Helmet of the Terrifier”, which in Modern Icelandic is “Aegishjalmur”. With eight lines spoking equidistant from each other out of a central circle, the sigil vaguely resembles the markings, on a compass and is said in some of these early modern manuscripts to avert the resentment of strong men.

These early Protestant spellbooks are old from our perspective, but they’re further from the period when the Eddas were written down than we are from those magicians of the 1600s. There is no continuity of tradition to suggest that these sigils represent something that survived from pre-Christian times.

But in the same way as Stonehenge gets associated with the druids—they’re both old and both British—but one is much older than the others, these sigils might well be falsely associated with the pre-Christian Norse, in spite of appearing in countless modern depictions of Vikings.

Common Questions about Magic in Old Norse

Q: How does Snorri describe the magic arts known to Odin?

According to Snorri, Odin was credited with powers categorized under the common Norse word for magic, as he was capable of shape-shifting, teaching language to his ravens, knowing where to dig for precious metals, and more. Odin also had the power to predict the future and cause people bad health, bad luck, or even death.

Q: What are the simplest types of magic?

The simplest types of magic are curses and blessings. Although simple, they can have powerful effects even if someone who isn’t magically adept speaks them.

Q: Why are curses and blessings considered the basic form of magic?

Because these forms of magic are accessible to anyone who can write or say them. Even the most common expressions like “hello” and “goodbye” used in everyday speaking are said to have evolved from what was once a simple curse or blessing. Swearing an oath is also considered magic of this type.

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